The COVID-19 pandemic is having a devastating impact on the Australian and world economies. Essential to every country is the security of their food supply, and measures put in place to control the spread of the virus are starting to disrupt the supply of agriculture products to markets and consumers in some countries, both within and across borders. The sector is also experiencing a substantial shift in the level of demand across a range of agricultural commodities.
There has been a major consumer change for the demand for essential and non-essential products. With a decrease in the ability to go out, demand from restaurants, hotels, catering and attending open markets has declined, while demand by supermarkets for essential items has greatly increased. Many businesses along the food chain are already adapting to these changing market demands and are sourcing alternative markets for their produce.
Governments, both federal and state, are dealing with multiple community adjustments due to COVID 19, this includes ensuring the efficient operation of the food supply chains across the nation, and have rightly declared agriculture an essential industry. In Queensland, our farming and fishing industries have built a global reputation for their clean, green produce and have been actively working with the government to ensure they can continue to provide sufficient product to satisfy local needs. The food and agriculture sectors, in many instances, have proven that they are resilient in the face of a range of challenges and will act on the opportunities available to adapt and transform. But continued government support is essential for this to be maintained.
Governments, both nationally and internationally, have put measures in place to suppress the spread of COVID-19 that are having some effects on the functioning of food supply chains. Among these, the impact on labour availability is of particular concern. Many of Queensland’s fresh produce industries depend on the timely availability of skilled and semi-skilled seasonal workers, including Pacific Islanders and back-packers.
In dealing with these labour supply concerns, governments have introduced new measures to help agribusiness and commercial fisheries access to seasonal workers. These measures have included the Australian Government amending visa requirements for certain working visa classifications to ensure the agriculture sector retains access to sufficient temporary labour during peak times. While the Queensland Government has introduced job matching services through the Queensland Jobs Finder and Harvest Trail websites and portals. They provide important services to connect seasonal and local job seekers with agricultural work and restricting unnecessary travel.
However, given the uncertainty of the international environment and the ability of sourcing labour from overseas that meet future requirements, both in a timely manner and with the numbers required, it is important to motivate and support opportunities to facilitate farmers’ access to an alternative workforce, including attracting workers who lost their jobs in other industry sectors such as hospitality.
A recent survey conducted by QFF industry member Growcom, in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF), indicated that to harvest their crops, Queensland’s horticulture industry has an average monthly workforce demand of approximately 10,000 skilled and unskilled workers over the next six months to October 2020.
A similar survey is underway through the Rural Jobs Skills Alliance (RJSA) to assess the labour needs in other agriculture industries such as cane, feedlots, and cotton. RJSA is also collaborating with DAF to determine what the potential impacts on workforce supply could be in the longer term as changes in consumer demand and international workforce availability are adjusted as government’s border, and community distancing measures continue to be enforced.
Most of these available opportunities will be located across many regional areas of Queensland with roles available for both skilled and unskilled workers. The challenge of delivering quality training to ensure that the intended workforce has the skills needed is key to responding to the expected disruptions due to the border and community restrictions. Adjustment to training and delivery options that respond to the sector’s evolving requirements will be needed. A sound internet service that has a wide coverage at a reasonable price is a necessity, not a luxury.
The state government has recently made a range of free training opportunities available through the Queensland TAFE system. However, members of the RJSA believe the cessation of the Queensland Agricultural Training Colleges’ operations has left an immediate gap in essential training delivery for the agricultural industry and the provision of training in some regional areas. This poses a challenge that is unlikely to be met completely by current training providers.
Additionally, in Queensland there is no standard agriculture ‘work-ready’ induction to ensure new employees arrive at the farm gate correctly prepared safely start work in a rural enterprise. To minimise administration burden from workforce changes due to the current COVID 19 situation, we need support for programs to pre-train new staff, including providing effective preparedness for working in a rural enterprise and a standard workplace health and safety induction. RJSA has been working on a training solution that has the support of many industry organisations and is currently seeking funding from the state government for its implementation.
We will need a co-ordinated education and training support from TAFE and other training providers to ensure we have an appropriately qualified workforce that can meet industry needs in the coming months. The RJSA is committed to supporting farmers to ensure that Queensland has an agricultural workforce that is well resourced, fit for purpose and responsive to the ever-changing technological advances and potential disruption ahead.